Romans 15:1-6 – The Responsibility of the Powerful

We who are powerful need to be patient with the weakness of those who don’t have power, and not please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good in order to build them up. Christ didn’t please himself, but, as it is written, The insults of those who insulted you fell on me. Whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction so that we could have hope through endurance and through the encouragement of the scriptures. May the God of endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude toward each other, similar to Christ Jesus’ attitude. That way you can glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ together with one voice. (Common English Bible)

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Stan Lee

Within the ancient church in Rome there existed people of Jewish descent as well as non-Jews (Gentiles) who had come to embrace Christ. These two groups had vastly different backgrounds and experiences. Now they found themselves within one church, with only their shared commitment to Jesus.

Getting along was downright hard. It took a great deal of work for them to understand one another. Throughout the Apostle Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome, he consistently went back and forth, addressing both groups.

Frankly, Paul was most difficult on his fellow Jews. He took them to task. In his view, the Jewish believers had a responsibility to set a tone of Christian equality and fairness. Since the Jewish people have such a rich spiritual history as God’s people, it was Paul’s admonition they use their power on behalf of the non-Jewish Gentiles.

There were some Jewish believers who believed it best that the non-Jewish believers become religiously Jewish. They thought that Gentiles, with no background whatsoever in Old Testament belief and practice, would need to be like them in order to become good Christians.

Paul passionately believed otherwise. The Jewish position of privilege was to be used to encourage and help, not criticize and make things more difficult for non-Jewish persons. Jesus, a Jew himself, did this during his life and ministry on earth.

It came down to a belief of whether Jews ought to hold positions of power within the church, or that power should be shared. As it still is today, it was then with the Jewish people: They have carried an inordinate burden of the world’s sin upon their shoulders. Paul wanted them to continue this special calling – not taking advantage of an opportunity to be on top – but embracing their call for the sake of Christ’s gospel.

Whether Jew or Gentile, all together were to make every effort to do what leads to peace and the encouragement of one another. Those with power were to make room at the table (and Table!) for those without power.

The ideal which Paul so adamantly struggled for was unity – to have both Jew and Gentile together as sisters and brothers in the faith. There was never to be two churches – one Jewish and one Gentile. Christ’s death had abolished all barriers to unity. Now, everyone must come together and re-orient their lives around the good news of new life in Christ. (Ephesians 2:11-22)

Since Jesus closely identified with others, now we, his followers, are to demonstrate a genuine spirit of care and welfare for all people. This is a new family relationship which did not exist before Christ. God, however, has adopted all kinds of non-Jewish people into the family. So, we have responsibilities to get along with each other.

It must always begin with those who possess the power and privilege. They have the first responsibility to initiate an egalitarian society. The onus is on the powerful to ensure that a fully inclusive Christian ethic is established and maintained. We are to welcome others just as Christ welcomed us.

The Christian ethic of welcoming, encouraging, and including is helped by being mindful of the following:

  • Listen more. Talk less. A particular temptation for those with power is to make decisions without consulting or collaborating. Basic human respect comes from listening – neither interrupting nor overtalking. The less powerful folks need to be heard. Give them a seat at the table and honor them with your ears.

People who listen when they are corrected will live, but those who will not admit that they are wrong are in danger. (Proverbs 10:17, GNT)

  • Be curious. Respect another’s contribution. Be welcoming and open, whether or not you agree. Seek understanding rather than always trying to be understood. “Tell me more.” “Help me understand.” And “I’d like some clarification…” are all simple phrases of healthy curiosity which invites others to talk.

The people in Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica. They were so glad to hear the message Paul told them. They studied the Scriptures every day to make sure that what they heard was really true. (Acts 17:11, ERV)

  • Don’t assume. Not everyone has had the same experiences. We don’t all know the same things. Take the posture of a learner. Be something of an anthropologist, seeking to discover rather than superimpose what you already believe on a different group of people.

Don’t fool yourselves! If any of you think you are wise in the things of this world, you will have to become foolish before you can be truly wise. (1 Corinthians 3:18, CEV)

  • Be aware of your own biases. We all have them. It takes some work to uncover our prejudices as well as our privileges.

I solemnly command you in the presence of God and Christ Jesus and the highest angels to obey these instructions without taking sides or showing favoritism to anyone. (1 Timothy 5:21, NLT)

  • Embrace empathy. We all know how it feels to be excluded, left out, and even shamed about something. Let’s use our own experiences to realize what others might be going through. Looking down on another, or dismissing them in some way, is not the way of our Lord.

Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. (Romans 12:15-16, MSG)

  • Focus on connection, not fear. In many groups and in many places, the “other,” the one who is different, is looked upon with suspicion as someone who might upset existing societal norms or steal something we have. Seeking to establish connection with others mitigates fear and anxious feelings.

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28, NRSV)

  • Be patient with others. People need our gentleness and our humble help, not our judgment and exasperation. Treat others the way you’d like to be treated.

Be humble and gentle in every way. Be patient with each other and lovingly accept each other. (Ephesians 4:2, GW)

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Jesus (Matthew 7:12, NIV)

That about sums up exactly what Paul intended to say. Now go and do likewise.

O God, in accepting one another wholeheartedly, fully, and completely, we accept you. Fill us then with love and let us be bound together with love as we live our lives, united in this one spirit which makes you present in the world, and which makes you witness to the ultimate reality that is love. Love has overcome. Love is victorious. You are Love. Amen.

1 Corinthians 11:27-34 – The Body

But if you eat the bread and drink the wine in a way that isn’t worthy of the Lord, you sin against his body and blood. That’s why you must examine the way you eat and drink. If you fail to understand that you are the body of the Lord, you will condemn yourselves by the way you eat and drink. That’s why many of you are sick and weak and why a lot of others have died. If we carefully judge ourselves, we won’t be punished. But when the Lord judges and punishes us, he does it to keep us from being condemned with the rest of the world.

My dear friends, you should wait until everyone gets there before you start eating. If you really are hungry, you can eat at home. Then you won’t condemn yourselves when you meet together.

After I arrive, I will instruct you about the other matters. (Contemporary English Version)

The body. The body and blood of Christ. The Body of Christ. Throughout the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth he employs the full literal and metaphorical understanding of the word “body.”

“Body” is an important word for Paul. He consistently and insistently uses it to convey a message of solidarity, unity, community, and responsibility.

Christ identifies with his people closely. This relationship is so intimate that it is like a head connected to a body. Jesus is committed to the Church.

God put everything under Christ’s feet and made him head of everything in the church, which is his body. His body, the church, is the fullness of Christ, who fills everything in every way. (Ephesians 1:22-23, CEB)

Believers in Jesus are connected to one another closely. They are vitally linked, like the parts of a body all unified together, acting in concert.

God handed out gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and pastor-teacher to train Christ’s followers in skilled servant work, working within Christ’s body, the church, until we’re all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God’s Son, fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13, MSG)

The Church, believers in God and followers of Christ, are the community of the redeemed. They serve and share together as if they were one body, not many bodies.

Christ is like a single body, which has many parts; it is still one body, even though it is made up of different parts. In the same way, all of us, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether slaves or free, have been baptized into the one body by the same Spirit, and we have all been given the one Spirit to drink.For the body itself is not made up of only one part, but of many parts…. As it is, there are many parts but one body. (1 Corinthians 12:12-14, 20, GNT)

And so, Christians have a responsibility to one another, They must work together as one Body of Christ, paying attention to each other and caring for all the members. There are not to be divisions of special interest groups or a separation of class, ethnicity, race, or gender.

Unfortunately, when the Corinthian Church gathered around the Lord’s Table, their eating and drinking didn’t eliminate barriers but instead maintained and created obstacles between each other.

Paul would have none of that kind of thinking or behavior. He cited it as a reason why many of the individual physical bodies of persons were sick, weak, and even dead. We are holistic people, so whenever there is a spiritual illness in the Body of Christ, it effects the physical bodies of members with sickness.

So, what to do about this malady of both body and soul? Wait for each other. Be patient with one another. Show deep concern for the Body because we are all truly one in Jesus Christ.

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves…. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. (Romans 12:10, 16, NIV)

And all of this is rooted in grounded in the body and blood of Jesus. Whenever believers come to the Table, their eating and drinking is meant to be an outward display of the inward reality of our collective redemption.

Christ gave his literal body so that we might be redeemed from old empty ways of living selfishly and independently from other people. He gathered believers together as the Body. The Church is to reflect Christ’s concern for humanity. The Spirit is given, so that together as one people of God, we will be the continuing presence of Jesus to a fragmented world in need of kindness, justice, and deliverance.

As the Lord’s Body, we are to understand our special purpose on this earth – to bless the world by demonstrating a different and better way to live. Proclaiming this good news in both word and deed is what we are about.

If we look, speak, and act no different than everyone else, we will all be lumped together at the end of the age when Christ returns. And it won’t go so well for us.

Yet, I am confident of better things with you and me.

Our coming together at the Lord’s Table needs to be a genuine celebration of redemption. Examining ourselves does not mean unnecessary navel gazing. Because whenever we go trying to find sin inside us, we will never be disappointed. Instead, the examination is to be communal – ensuring there is room at the Table for everyone, and that each person is connected and participating.

In short, we are to love one another, just as Christ loved us and gave himself for us.

Help carry each other’s burdens. In this way you will follow Christ’s teachings. (Galatians 6:2, GW)

May it be so, to the glory of God.

Lord Jesus, who prayed that we might all be one, we pray to you for the unity of Christians, according to your will, according to your means. May your Spirit enable us to experience the suffering caused by division, to see our sin, and to hope beyond all hope. Amen.

Matthew 8:18-22 – The Path of Christian Discipleship

When Jesus saw that a curious crowd was growing by the minute, he told his disciples to get him out of there to the other side of the lake. As they left, a religion scholar asked if he could go along. “I’ll go with you, wherever,” he said.

Jesus was curt: “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.”

Another follower said, “Master, excuse me for a couple of days, please. I have my father’s funeral to take care of.”

Jesus refused. “First things first. Your business is life, not death. Follow me. Pursue life.” (The Message)

Count the cost. Realize what it will take. Have some understanding of the time, energy, and resources needed. Discern the kind of commitment which is before you. It’s a matter of life and death, of spiritual survival.

If you had to carry everything you needed in a backpack, what would you put into it?

First off, for me and most people, that means identifying the barest essentials. It would likely take a long time to think simplistically about what is most important for survival. A lot of things would get left behind. And many items would gain greater attention and appreciation.

We would need some small basic tools including: a multi-tool with a knife and pliers; a source of illumination, like a flashlight and extra batteries; duct tape; rope; fishing line; a way of starting fire; a pot, pan, and mug; first-aid kit; emergency poncho; and just a few extra items of clothing.

If we were to live out of a backpack, it would very much change our lifestyle. And that is the point Jesus was trying to get across to some individuals who seemed like they couldn’t do that.

Trying to fit an existing life into a brand new life won’t work. It will not fit into the backpack of Christian discipleship.

Instead, we must adjust to a new reality, a completely different way of being.

When my wife and I were raising our girls, those precocious little females brought lots of life to the dinner table each night. There was never a dull moment with them. Today, however, they are all grown with their own families – which means we are empty-nesters.

It would be weird if my wife and I continued to live as if they were home – making large meals, dirtying lots of dishes, and engaging in mock conversations. Rather, although it took a while to get used to, we eventually came to grips with the new reality that our precious girls were grown and no longer living under our roof. And that meant a complete change of lifestyle for us.

A full-orbed Christian spirituality includes both the comfort of Christ to others, and the rugged responsibility to obey the words and ways of Jesus. In other words, the love of Jesus Christ is both tender and tough, at the same time, all the time.

Hurting and healing are both necessary for the follower of Jesus. Hard teachings and uncompromising commands for discipleship from Christ become the pathways of healing.

So, then, to go all out for Christ will involve much difficulty.

Jesus said to his followers, “If any of you want to be my follower, you must stop thinking about yourself and what you want. You must be willing to carry the cross that is given to you for following me. Any of you who try to save the life you have will lose it. But you who give up your life for me will find true life.”

Matthew 16:24-25, ERV

In today’s New Testament lesson, Jesus rather rudely rejected two would-be followers. When it comes to God’s upside-down kingdom, the eager beavers are turned away, and the half-hearted are called.

Jesus wants us, all of us, and not just our dedication. That is the demand of Christian discipleship. Anyone who believes they can remain the same person and simply fit a bit of Jesus into their lives, does not understand the cost of following Christ. The person who thinks it is Christianity’s lucky day when they decide to follow Jesus has not yet grasped what it means to be a Christian.

Whereas the religious scholar’s head was too big to fit through the narrow hole of Christian discipleship, the man who wanted to bury his father was too fainthearted and timid. He wanted to dip his toe in the water, and really had no intention of taking the all out plunge into the pool.

Nobody needs to do something “first” before following Jesus. Essentially, Jesus was neither invited nor welcome to the funeral. And Christ will have nothing to do with people picking and choosing which areas of their lives he will be invited into. It’s either a wholesale welcome or no welcome, at all.

When Jesus knocks on the door, he wants to be invited into the entire house, not just the foyer.

For Jesus, following him isn’t easy. The world is full of spiritual zombies, the walking dead. This old fallen world needs Christian disciples who will follow Jesus anywhere – into the hard places and rough terrain of engaging the sinful world.

We are meant to wholeheartedly follow Jesus, neither flippantly without counting the cost, nor procrastinating the hard road of Christian discipleship. Christians are to accept and maintain orders of first importance – which means full submission and obedience to Jesus Christ. Anything less is merely a cheap form of following.

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross by Isaac Watts

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Where every realm of nature mine
My gift was still be far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Lord, you are all-knowing and full of wisdom. Your plan is masterful. Help me as your disciple to follow you in every thought, word, and deed. Give me a heart of obedience and trust so that I do not get wrapped up in my doubt or what I think is the right choice.

Help me to recognize that your good will does not always look the way I think it should, but that doesn’t make it any less good. I desire to be your disciple and follow you all the days of my life. Please give me the strength to do that. Amen.

Romans 13:1-7 – Good Citizenship

1960 Elementary Classroom

Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order. So live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible. Duly constituted authorities are only a threat if you’re trying to get by with something. Decent citizens should have nothing to fear.

Do you want to be on good terms with the government? Be a responsible citizen and you’ll get on just fine, the government working to your advantage. But if you’re breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it. That’s why you must live responsibly—not just to avoid punishment but also because it’s the right way to live.

That’s also why you pay taxes—so that an orderly way of life can be maintained. Fulfill your obligations as a citizen. Pay your taxes, pay your bills, respect your leaders. (MSG)

Back in the day (way back!) when I was in elementary school every student received a grade on their report card for “citizenship.”  Even further back, my Dad’s report cards had grades for “deportment.” Both citizenship and deportment were words used by the public-school system to gauge how well individual students conducted themselves with the teacher’s authority, behaved with fellow students, and handled the responsibilities of their studies. It was a grade given for the overall obedience and submission of students with their duties and obligations, or the lack thereof.

Today’s New Testament lesson is one of those Scripture texts which has been used and abused throughout history. Since we no longer give grades on citizenship and deportment, a careful consideration of both what this biblical passage is, and is not, must be observed.

What Citizenship is Not: Irresponsible and Disobedient Injustice

Advocating a favored political philosophy or party to the point of avoiding a rival party or power and resisting their government through lack of submission, being uncivil and disrespectful, and stubbornly disobedient is poor deportment and will earn an “F” from God on the report card of life.

Picking-and-choosing which laws I will obey and which ones I will not is extremely far from the biblical teaching given. Rebellion against laws I do not like will only result in getting punished from the principal for being shortsighted and stupid.

On the other hand, blind and unthinking adherence to a government is irresponsible and can be unethical. Unjust leaders and immoral laws which merely champion certain people and not the common good of all need to be dislodged and dismantled. When one simply says, “I’m just doing my job,” or “I don’t want to get in trouble,” in the face of unjust laws and leadership, then we are complicit in the perpetuating of the evil person or system. Blind obedience keeps abusive people in the classroom.

Vigilante-ism is a form of “recess justice.” It is a refusal to accept what is taking place and takes matters into one’s own hands. Just before explaining citizenship, the Apostle Paul said, “Do not take revenge but leave room for God’s wrath,” and, “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:19, 21). There is no place for vigilante justice in the kingdom of God. At its basest form, vigilantes are resisting God’s justice and being extremely impatient with the divine plan.

Good Citizenship

What Citizenship is: Responsible and Submissive Justice

Submission is a choice. The word “submit” in the New Testament means “to place oneself under authority.” In other words, to submit to another person, group, system, or government is a human volitional choice. Obedience through coercion, as in totalitarian regimes, is not submission – it is oppression.

Good citizenship begins with humble submission to governing authorities who are trying to do their best and have everyone’s best interests at mind with responsible laws which benefit the common good of all. Most parents and school boards would do well to remember that.

Justice is primarily about provision, and not about being punitive. I realize that many, if not most, people use the term justice in the penal sense – wanting convictions and incarcerations when someone has committed a crime against the state and/or humanity. And, although this is a very important work of government, the biblical sense of justice is about provision – giving people their rights to life and liberty and ensuring that we all exist in an equitable form of union together as one people.

When people fall through the cracks of bureaucracy and do not have what they need to survive, let alone thrive, then this is an injustice which needs remedy sooner than later – without putting it off to another election cycle. So, put the spanking paddles of shame away (yes, kids at school got the paddle in my day) and instead find ways to uplift and support one another.

Responsible citizenship involves a proper deportment of volitional submission, careful obedience, proper payment of taxes for the benefit of all, and providing due respect to public servants. Keep in mind that the Apostle Paul originally wrote about how to conduct ourselves with government smack in the middle of a Roman Empire which was often fickle and careless about the rights of Christians, Jews, and others.

We submit not because we must, but because it is the right thing to do. To do otherwise is to not only violate the law but our consciences, as well.

Our consciences also need to be clear and clean about the need for justice in this old fallen world of ours. Christians have a continuing and outstanding debt to love one another. Having justice for some and injustice for others is not going to cut it with a Just God. Our Creator and Sustainer desires that every single individual on planet earth – regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, or any other human contrived social construct – have their needs met without prejudice, favoritism, or cronyism.

God’s original plan for the world includes an egalitarian society, so we must be careful to remember and work toward the ideal, while at the same time dealing graciously and resolutely with the realities of injustice all around us. I wonder what grade Jesus would give us so far this year for our deportment.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, just as you welcome us into your kingdom, help us to love each other deeply,
offer hospitality to one another without grumbling, encourage each to use the gifts we have received to serve others, and submit to the governing authorities with the good citizenship you have provided us so that every one of us will be a faithful steward of God’s grace in its various forms. Amen.